The recent death of Maria Franziska von Trapp, the last surviving member of the original Trapp Family Singers, recalls a visit that her entire family—all ten children with their parents and their musical director—made to the Massachusetts State House, probably on 20 December 1940.
The handsome blue leather-bound volume that contains the von Trapp family autographs is decorated in gold and made up of blank, unnumbered pages. It bears the inscription “Guest Book/Leverett Saltonstall/Governor.” There are about sixty-five pages that record guests to the Massachusetts State House between 10 March 1939 and mid-1944. The signatures in the album are an eclectic mix of New York stage actors (at that time Broadway plays often had out-of-town previews in Boston), Hollywood celebrities here to promote movies and careers, political figures (Republicans for the most part, as was the governor), and other visitors from all over the world and all walks of life. After war broke out in Europe in 1939—and especially after the United States entered the Second World War in 1941—the names in the album often are of foreign refugees (the royal families and governments in exile of occupied nations) as well as visiting diplomatic and military missions.
In his memoirs, Governor Saltonstall recollected that his staff brought stars of new plays that were opening in Boston to the State House to promote business in the Commonwealth through out-of-state publicity. He gave as examples Dorothy Lamour (who signed herself “Dottie”), Jane Withers, and Fred Astaire, but the number of visitors from Hollywood appears to be far greater than from New York. The guest book opens a window upon mid-twentieth-century celebrity culture. Was Paul Robeson at the State House at the same time as Miss America, or did they only sign the same page? Bud Abbott came with Lou Costello, but were Thornton Wilder and Aaron Copland traveling together or just sequential visitors? On these pages, the juxtaposition of the signatures of the lieutenant governor of Texas and the bishop of Rangoon is not particularly unusual. When he arrived, was Father Flanagan from Boys Town, Nebraska—Spencer Tracy already had played him in the movie—a more notable figure than Henri Hoppenot, the delegate from the French Committee of National Liberation? What brought so many stars of stage and screen through Boston, especially in war time?
Most entries in the guest book are undated autographs, giving the reader no insight as to the character of the visit and only an approximate date, although a few guests broke with protocol. Jerry Colonna, who came with Bob Hope, gave as his address, “West End Boston and Hollywood, Cal.,” while Tallulah Bankhead noted that she was from “Everywhere I roam.” Boxing champion Joe Louis added a longer note, praising Saltonstall’s stance on civil rights: “You do not draw [a] color line,” he wrote, “I’m with you and you with me.”
The fact that the undated autographs of the von Trapp family, who gave concerts in Boston at Jordan Hall in December 1940 and again in January 1941, appear on the same page as the teenage Indian movie star, Sabu, makes it likely that they visited on or soon after 20 December 1940, the day that Sabu’s interview with the governor received much press attention, although notices of the von Trapp concerts in December state that the youngest of the children were not traveling with the family.
Since many people know the von Trapp family only from the play and film, The Sound of Music, it is important to remember that the names, ages, and order of birth of the von Trapp children (and the order of events) were changed when their lives were set to music. They used the honorific “von” with their name, a title that went back to the service of the children’s paternal grandfather, August von Trapp, in the Austro-Hungarian Navy, but performed in America first under the name of the Trapp Family Choir and by 1940 as the Trapp Family Singers.
The eldest seven von Trapp children: Rupert, Agathe, Maria, Werner, Hedwig, Johanna, and Martina had been born between 1911 and 1921, the children of Georg Johannes Ritter von Trapp and his first wife, Agathe Whitehead von Trapp, so by 1940 they were no longer young children, or even, except for Martina, teenagers. The three children from Captain von Trapp’s second marriage to Maria Kutschera von Trapp (Rosemarie, Eleonore, and Johannes, who was born in the United States in 1939) were considerably younger. The Rev. Franz Wasner, a Catholic priest and family friend from Austria, had accompanied the von Trapps into exile in America. He served as the director and conductor of the Trapp Family Singers for more than twenty years.
When Germany invaded Austria in 1938, the Catholic and anti-Nazi von Trapp family fled to Italy (by train rather than mountain pass) and then came to the United States, but only as visiting performers. Although the interesting origins of the Trapp Family Choir garnered much public interest whenever they performed, their first musical tour in America was difficult, and in 1939 they were forced by United States immigration law to return to Europe where they performed in Scandinavia.
The von Trapps returned to America soon after the outbreak of war in Europe in October 1939, but again only on six month visitors’ visas, although they were permitted to stay in the United States as refugees. Renamed the Trapp Family Singers, in 1940 they performed more than 100 concerts throughout the states, travelling from city to town in a chartered blue bus.
When the von Trapps visited the State House, Maria von Trapp gave her address as “Salzburg.” More realistically, perhaps, Captain von Trapp gave their address as “252 Merion Road, Merion, Pa,” where a music enthusiast had provided them with a refuge when they were not on tour. While the von Trapp family is closely associated with Stowe, Vermont, they did not spend the non-touring part of the year there until the following summer, or move permanently to the farm in Stowe that they renamed “Cor Unum” (“One Heart”) and where they ran a summer music camp until 1943. Members of the family still operate the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe.
The other signature to appear on this page of the Saltonstall guest book is that of Sabu Dastagir (of Hollywood, California, and Mysore, India), a sixteen-year-old film star who was in Boston to promote his new film, The Thief of Bagdad, and to present Governor Saltonstall with a “magic carpet.” While perhaps not yet at the height of his fame—the following year Sabu would appear in the film of Kipling’s The Jungle Book—he seems to have outshone the celebrity of the von Trapp family at that point in their singing career, at least in the amount of newspaper space devoted to his State House visit.
Leverett Saltonstall was born in Chestnut Hill (Newton), Massachusetts, in 1892. The Saltonstalls were a long-settled and notable New England family—Leverett was the tenth generation of his family to attend Harvard College. He served in World War I and practiced law before beginning his forty-six-year political career when he was elected to the Newton Board of Aldermen in 1920. After serving in the Massachusetts legislature (including four terms as speaker of the House of Representatives), he was elected governor for the first of three consecutive terms in 1938. As a politician, Saltonstall was able to combine New England Yankee rectitude with a broad popular appeal.
In 1944, Governor Saltonstall was elected to a four-year term in the United States Senate after the incumbent, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., resigned his seat to rejoin the army. Saltonstall served three additional six-year terms in the Senate before he retired from public office in 1966. At his death in 1979, Senator Saltonstall had been a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society for thirty-eight years.
Adams, Marjory. “Sabu to Saltonstall—the young Hindu movie star gives the Governor a rug from Sabu’s native India.” Boston Globe, December 21, 1940, p. 4.
Gearin, Joan. “Movie vs. Reality: The Real Story of the von Trapp Family." Prologue Magazine. Winter 2005, vol. 37, no. 4.
Saltonstall, Leverett. Leverett Saltonstall papers, 1906-1981.
The Massachusetts Historical Society holds a very large collection of the personal papers and office files of Governor and later Senator Leverett Saltonstall.
Saltonstall, Leverett. Salty: Recollections of a Yankee in Politics. Boston: The Boston Globe, 1976.
Trapp, Agathe. Memories before & after the Sound of Music: an Autobiography. Franklin, Tenn.: Hillsboro Press, 2003.
Trapp, Georg von. To the Last Salute: Memories of an Austrian U-Boat Commander. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.
An English translation of Bis zum Letzen Flaggenschuss.
Trapp, Maria Augusta. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers: The Story that Inspired the Sound of Music. New York: Perennial, 2002.
First published Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1949.
Trapp, Maria Augusta. Yesterday, Today, and Forever. Harrison, Ark.: New Leaf Press, 1975.
First published Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1952.